This work is supported by Anaconda Inc and the Data Driven Discovery Initiative from the Moore Foundation

Last week at PyCon DE I had the good fortune to meet Stefan Behnel, one of the core developers of Cython. Together we worked to optimize a small benchmark that is representative of Dask’s central task scheduler, a pure-Python application that is primarily data structure bound.

Our benchmark is a toy problem that creates three data structures that index each other with dictionaries, lists, and sets, and then does some simple arithmetic. (You don’t need to understand this benchmark deeply to read this article.)

import random
import time

nA = 100
nB = 100
nC = 100

A = {'A-%d' % i: ['B-%d' % random.randint(0, nB - 1)
                  for i in range(random.randint(0, 5))]
     for i in range(nA)}

B = {'B-%d' % i: {'C-%d' % random.randint(0, nC - 1)
                  for i in range(random.randint(1, 3))}
     for i in range(nB)}

C = {'C-%d' % i: i for i in range(nC)}

data = ['A-%d' % i for i in range(nA)]

def f(A, B, C, data):
    for a_key in data:
        b_keys = A[a_key]
        for b_key in b_keys:
            for c_key in B[b_key]:
                C[c_key] += 1

start = time.time()

for i in range(10000):
    f(A, B, C, data)

end = time.time()

print("Duration: %0.3f seconds" % (end - start))
$ python
Duration: 1.12 seconds

This is an atypical problem Python optimization because it is primarily bound by data structure access (dicts, lists, sets), rather than numerical operations commonly optimized by Cython (nested for loops over floating point arithmetic). Python is already decently fast here, typically within a factor of 2-5x of compiled languages like Java or C++, but still we’d like to improve this when possible.

In this post we combine two different methods to optimize data-structure bound workloads:

  1. Compiling Python code with Cython with no other annotations
  2. Interning strings for more rapid dict lookups

Finally at the end of the post we also run the benchmark under PyPy to compare performance.


First we compile our Python code with Cython. Normally when using Cython we annotate our variables with types, giving the compiler enough information to avoid using Python altogether. However in our case we don’t have many numeric operations and we’re going to be using Python data structures regardless, so this won’t help much. We compile our original Python code without alteration.

cythonize -i

And run

$ python -c "import benchmark"
Duration: 0.73 seconds

This gives us a decent speedup from 1.1 seconds to 0.73 seconds. This isn’t huge relative to typical Cython speedups (which are often 10-100x) but would be a very welcome change for our scheduler, where we’ve been chasing 5% optimizations for a while now.

Interning Strings

Our second trick is to intern strings. This means that we try to always have only one copy of every string. This improves performance when doing dictionary lookups because of the following:

  1. Python computes the hash of the string only once (strings cache their hash value once computed)
  2. Python checks for object identity (fast) before moving on to value equality (slow)

Or, anecdotally, text is text is faster in Python than text == text. If you ensure that there is only one copy of every string then you only need to do identity comparisons like text is text.

So, if any time we see a string "abc" it is exactly the same object as all other "abc" strings in our program, then string-dict lookups will only require a pointer/integer equality check, rather than having to do a full string comparison.

Adding string interning to our benchmark looks like the following:

inter = {}

def intern(x):
        return inter[x]
    except KeyError:
        inter[x] = x
        return x

A = {intern('A-%d' % i): [intern('B-%d' % random.randint(0, nB - 1))
                  for i in range(random.randint(0, 5))]
     for i in range(nA)}

B = {intern('B-%d' % i): {intern('C-%d' % random.randint(0, nC - 1))
                  for i in range(random.randint(1, 3))}
     for i in range(nB)}

C = {intern('C-%d' % i): i for i in range(nC)}

data = [intern('A-%d' % i) for i in range(nA)]

# The rest of the benchmark is as before

This brings our duration from 1.1s down to 0.75s. Note that this is without the separate Cython improvements described just above.

Cython + Interning

We can combine both optimizations. This brings us to around 0.45s, a 2-3x improvement over our original time.

cythonize -i

$ python -c "import benchmark2"
Duration: 0.46 seconds


Alternatively, we can just run everything in PyPy.

$ pypy3  # original
Duration: 0.25 seconds

$ pypy3  # includes interning
Duraiton: 0.20 seconds

So PyPy can be quite a bit faster than Cython on this sort of code (which is not a big surprise). Interning helps a bit, but not quite as much.

This is fairly encouraging. The Dask scheduler can run under PyPy even while Dask clients and workers run under normal CPython (for use with the full PyData stack).

Preliminary Results on Dask Benchmark

We started this experiment with the assumption that our toy benchmark somehow represented the Dask’s scheduler in terms of performance characteristics. This assumption, of course, is false. The Dask scheduler is significantly more complex and it is difficult to build a single toy example to represent its performance.

When we try these tricks on a slightly more complex benchmark that actually uses the Dask scheduler we find the following results:

  • Cython: almost no effect
  • String Interning: almost no effect
  • PyPy: almost no effect

However I have only spent a brief amount of time on this (twenty minutes?) and so I hope that the lack of a performance gain here is due to lack of effort.

If anyone is interested in this I hope that this blogpost contains enough information to get anyone started if they want to investigate further.

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